There’s no doubt Colombia is a fantastic place to visit–but which city to choose? The nation’s major districts are nothing alike. Luckily, R Dub runs ’em down for you, story by story and photo by photo and you may be surprised by his favorite.
Why is/was Colombia so special to me? Colombia was the very last country in my challenge to see all of South and Central America before I turned 40. And I’m 39 and seven months old; cuttin’ it close, but boom, got ‘er done before the buzzer. I’m almost kind of sad though…no more South and Central American countries; new ones at least.
I saw three cities in Colombia, all extremely different from one another. Let’s take a quick look at all three:
(update: I added a fourth city in 2018, and added that below.)
I had what I call an Extreme Layover in Bogotá: where I deplane, bop around town, and jump back on my plane the same day. I had about nine hours between flights, which is really about four or five, when you count the time it takes to get off the plane, go through customs and immigration, and get into town.
I actually wanted to arrange a tour of Bogotá, and the cool thing is that “layover tours” for this city actually exist; but alas, I planned poorly and was trying to book a tour the morning of. No-go. I’d be on my own this time.
When you hear “Colombia,” many people think of drug cartels, smuggling, murder and kidnapping. I was a tad apprehensive exploring this city on my own, but that never stopped me before. Surprisingly, I didn’t do any research on Bogotá before arriving; mostly because I devoted all my time to gathering Venezuela intel (that was a very dangerous trip), so I was coming into the city completely blind. But I’ve found that sometimes, that makes it the most fun.
The cabbie dropped me off at the gold museum downtown, but I didn’t want to spend my time in a museum. I was cooped up under lock and key and beneath the protective wings of a guide for the past three days in Venezuela…I wanted to roam! And it only took me about five minutes to realize I loved Bogotá, starting with Mambo Records, where I stopped in to buy a Bossa Nova CD.
I very quickly felt the buzz and fast pace of Bogotá; this city was humming! It was the definition of organized chaos! I felt alive as I stepped through squares, around street corners, across intersections and down boulevards. So many people, like ants, all taking part in what is life here in Bogotá.
I soon found out Bogotá loves art! So many buildings I passed used their walls as giant canvases. Beautiful, colorful pieces of art, for all to see, around every corner.
I loved the art in Bogotá. The city is also known for is its graffiti. But awesome graffiti, if that’s such a thing. The city has some of the most amazing graffiti “art” in the world. There are even official “graffiti tours” of Bogotá, which shows guests around the city to see the best displays. I saw an absolutely incredible graffiti painting of Eazy-E, but sadly it was under a bridge and we were moving too fast and it was too dark to snap a pic. Trust me, it was bad ass! I’d totally love to do the graffiti tour next time. This town loves its art!
RAMBLIN’ EXPERT TIP: If seeing the world’s best graffiti tickles your fancy, book an official “graffiti tour.” It looks amazing and will have all your followers jealous of your Instagram!
So lots of Art. And books. I’ve never seen so many books for sale, everywhere. I mean every, where. The first thing I stumbled upon was a giant book fair taking up an entire square. Dozens of different tents and vendors selling books. I mean tons!
I thought that was it, until I left the square to continue my walk, only to see book stores, a bunch of them! And then people selling books on the sidewalks! Either Bogotá is a super literate place or I just happened to stumble on the area of town that specializes in selling books; either way, I was bowled over at the sheer amount of book sales happening in this city. Book-overload!
I continued wandering the streets, with no map, direction or destination in mind. I just went with the flow as rush hour approached.
I had a really fun time running around Bogotá and what a refreshing break from Caracas, which almost seemed “shut down.” Here in Bogotá, capitalism thrived, and you saw and felt it on every street, around every corner and down every alley. Most streets had their own theme, or type of product they sold: for example, a street full of suit stores, a street with just party supplies, one street had all office and stationary products…such a night-and-day difference from Venezuela, where they are running out of even many basic items.
It was getting dark, and I’d soon have to head back to catch my next flight on to Barranquilla. I could have “airport food” for dinner but I’d rather find something authentic on the streets of Bogotá.
I passed this door that looked intriguing. In I went!
Surprises like these are the moments I live for…it’s why I travel without a guidebook often. Here’s what was inside that door and up those stairs:
I loved Colombiana soda, by the way…my favorite. The flavor? “Kola Champagne,” or “Champagne Cola!” This flavor is found throughout the Caribbean and is sort of like a fruity version of cream soda. I first tried Kola Champagne when I was a boy in Florida, and now I always look for it when I’m in the Caribbean or Latin America. It’s goooood.
It was getting late and I had to head to the airport if I was going to make my next flight. But I wanted to stay in Bogotá! I felt I was leaving prematurely; way too soon. There are plenty of cities I get bored with after three hours. Bogotá wasn’t one of them. I wanted to explore other neighborhoods, meet more people, see more art and find more hidden hole-in-the-wall locals-only spots. I needed a minimum of three days here. But unfortunately it wasn’t in the cards this time.
I grabbed a taxi, sat in some horrible rush hour traffic, but luckily made it onto my flight to Barranquilla. Bye bye Bogotá.
I landed at a small airport in the coastal town of Barranquilla at 10:30PM. I’ll be honest, I chose Barranquilla because the name sounded cool. I had no clue what this town was about, but I loved the way the name sounds. Is that weird? I think that’s weird.
I quickly discovered that besides being the birthplace of Shakira, this town was home to the worst taxi drivers in the world. I thought I was going to die on the way to the hotel. But alas, we arrived, without injury. Except my poor finger. It really started to hurt. I’d trimmed my nails five days ago, and ever since, the cuticle on my left-hand pointer finger had felt tender. It worsened very slowly over the last few days, and by the time I was in bed in Barranquilla, it was red, swollen and throbbing. It felt like my finger was stuck in fire and then hit with a hammer. Maybe I am a baby, but it hurt so bad. I soaked it and bandaged it and went to sleep.
The next day the pain was so bad, I could feel every heartbeat pulsate through my giant, ugly finger. I had to do something. Call me a baby, but it had to be infected; and if you don’t treat an infection things can get really bad. I envisioned me having to tell people the story of “that one time in Colombia, where I lost my finger…” No way! I jumped in a cab and headed to urgent care.
I had no clue what I was in for. What kind of crazy hospital would I find, would I have to wait for hours to be seen, would there be chickens running around the waiting room, would they want to cut off my finger??? I was scared.
But within minutes I was in the tender loving care of Doctora Danny Pautt Arrieta. My high school Spanish paid off (and maybe a little a help from Google Translate), and soon Dr. Arrieta was writing me a prescription for an antibiotic, painkiller and topical cream. I think I might actually live, and my finger would make it too!
Finger throbbing, I cruised over to the pharmacy with my prescriptions and then it was off to lunch. The Villa Country Mall was down the street from my hotel, and let’s face it, food courts in foreign countries are fun! Here was my first Barranquilla meal from Chalote…all this for just $3.70!
After lunch and my drugs, it was time to get out and explore! I wasn’t going to let a sore finger keep me down. (There may or may not have been a nap involved sometime that day).
I grabbed a cab from my hotel and a few notes from TripAdvisor’s “To Do” page for Barranquilla and hit the road.
Next on to Castillo de Salgar. I didn’t even know what it was, and it was closed…but made for a nice visit at sunset. The building was on a cliff overlooking the sea.
As you know, my favorite part of traveling are the “surprises” I stumble upon along the way. I was enamored with this old theater-turned-restaurant in downtown Barranquilla called Rex. I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful Art Deco building as we sped through the intersection. I asked my taxista to turn around and park so I could check it out.
My first and only full day in Barranquilla was productive! I got my finger fixed up (the medicine kicked in pretty quickly) and my taxi driver took me to see most of the notable sites in the area. I liked Barranquilla…pretty town with lots of movement and nice people. Crazy cab drivers! Food court for dinner.
The next day it was off to Cartagena. My original plan was to find a bus to make the 75-mile journey–that would be fun! But after finding out that a private van would be pretty cheap, and considering my tender finger, I opted for the van. It’s called a Puerta a Puerta (door to door) and it took us about two and half hours to arrive in Cartagena. It would have been quicker, but we made several stops to pick up passengers, including turning around to get someone after we were already fifteen minutes out of town. It was a pretty smooth ride, although a little scary: the driver did not give a F about the solid lines, passing on hills, curves, etc. I was on the edge of my seat for most of the ride. We arrived into Cartagena just before the two-and-a-half hours of non-stop mind-numbing Reggaeton made me lose my mind! It’s all the same song, I swear!!!
I checked into the bay-side Almirante Hotel and had a great view from the 15th floor. I guess I still had Venezuela on my mind. It was quite a stressful, yet exhilarating trip. And I had the most amazing sandwich, called arepa. So I was thrilled when I found a Venezuelan arepa joint two blocks away from my hotel. During my three days in Cartagena, I ate all but one meal at a El Arepazo Venezolano; arepa after arepa, all throughout the trip.
My hotel was located on a peninsula with all the other major ones, in an area called Bocagrande: tons of hotels, restaurants, clubs, bars and shops. It was a two-mile walk to the famous Walled City of Cartagena from Bocagrande.
I had fun exploring the inside of the Walled City that first afternoon. I met a local family who’s seven year old kid was so excited to practice to his English with me, I enjoyed local music being performed in the square, and I got a kick out of seeing young lovers embrace each other while sitting in the frame of the Walled City’s cut-out windows, overlooking the sea.
On day two I took the City Trolley Tour. As much I don’t dig organized tours, I highly recommend this one, since Catagena’s major points of interests are kind of spread out. You jump on this little trolley bus, with a very animated guide, and cruise around the city for a few hours. It must have been four or five hours, and was super cheap. Here are a few of the highlights:
I decided to take full advantage of my last full day in Cartagena by booking a tour of the Islas del Rosario. In the A.M. I jumped on a boat with about 25 other folks and hit the water. We stopped at a few different islands, including a private resort, did some snorkeling and had an authentic Colombian lunch. I lucked out and got to hang with three Brasilian girls on the tour whom I did my best to impress with my stellar português. Tudo bem?
My final night in Cartagena was super chill. I had my 37th arepa and took a stroll around Bocagrande like a senior citizen. One thing’s for sure: if you want to have fun and party, Cartagena’s a great spot. I saw dozens of open-air “party buses,” being filled with tourists. Some of the buses had people playing live music on-board and there were plenty of open containers floating around. Lights flashing and drums pounding, these buses were moving discos, filled with inebriated party-people hootin’ and hollerin’ around every corner. I just smiled and nodded “no thanks” when the drivers tried to drag me aboard. They don’t know I like to take it “nice and slow,” just like my radio show, haha.
Possibly my favorite “surprise” was running into local rappers who flowed to the beat for tips. I was impressed not just by their lyrics, but how they managed to mix their vocals with the music, without a mixer of even a mic. They had it down!
Even though it was ultra-touristy, I enjoyed Cartagena. I do think it’s the perfect spot for the beginner-South American traveler; the person who is a little apprehensive of traveling to Latin America…the amateur explorer who needs to “ease into” South America. Both The Walled City and Bocagrande were extremely tourist-friendly, with mobs of visitors strolling up and down the street: from white-haired senior citizens to college kids, to families with babies and strollers. Any stereotypical preconceived vision of a shady city with dangers around every corner is immediately shattered, as you stroll down Carrera 2 among gobs of tourists of every age, color and background. There was police everywhere, and not the scary Venezuela kind–but the type watching out for tourists. Gift outlets, coffee shops and lively bars and restaurants were lined every block. The city was almost too “touristy” for my taste–as you know, I like to be far away from the visitors and live like a local when I travel–but if you’re into the fun, partying, taking shots and wearing straw hats kind of vacation, you will love Cartagena.
Update – September 2018: Medellín
On my quest to see all 193 countries on earth, I try not to do repeats, rather using what precious vacation time I accrue to visit new nations. But an end-of-week conference in Orlando combined with a surplus of Spirit Airlines miles and just the right flight schedules convinced me to take a run at Medellín this weekend.
Smells Like Teen Spirit
Say what you want about Spirit–trust me, my friends enjoyed chiding me the entire week–but if you know how to fly Spirit, it can be a great airline. And when I say “how,” I mean, if you understand their pricing policy, can travel with one small bag (probably impossible for most women), and most importantly–on long flights–you reserve “the big seat.”
Spirit planes have just eight first class-sized seats in the front of each plane, available for an extra fee. And although I dodge airline fees like the plague (I’ll lose sleep if I ever end up having to pay for a checked bag), the small price to enjoy that jumbo, comfy chair is worth every peso.
I ended up on multiple Spirit planes this week, from SAN-IAH-MCO for my conference in Orlando, and then IAH-FLL-MDE to arrive in Colombia on Saturday afternoon, and let me tell you, that big seat was everrrrrrrrythiiiiiiiing! I was completely miserable on a previous short hop from San Diego just to Chicago, flying in the back on one of Spirit’s standard, non-reclining picnic chairs; but this entire week was tolerable, and dare I even say enjoyable, because of the comfy chairs up front.
The Eagle has Landed
Okay, so enough about the planes. I touched down in Medellín early that Saturday afternoon. I’d only have a few hours to explore before sundown, and I would be leaving the very next morning, so the fact that the airport is an hour away from the city didn’t help. However, I loved the fact that there are buses that leave every few minutes, taking you directly into town, for about USD $3.25. That’s my first tip for Medellín. Grab this bus! They are easy to find, with big signs marked “Medellín,” right outside the airport doors. You can’t miss it. I jumped on the bus and waited just a few minutes until it was full, then we were off.
The ride into town took about an hour and was pleasant, although my arse was getting sore from sitting so much. The last thing you want to do after an international flight is to have to sit again, but what can you do?
I had to avoid looking at my phone on the trip into town, and keep my eyes on the horizon, to avoid becoming car sick. There were countless tight twists and turns, first going up the mountain, then winding down into the valley that is Medellín. If you get car sick easily, you’ve been warned.
The geography of the city reminded me of La Paz, Bolivia, except a little less extreme. Medellín is a beautiful city built into a giant valley; La Paz‘s valley was much more pronounced, much more steeper–resembling a giant crater in the earth, filled with buildings.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Grab the bus located immediately outside of the airport doors for a cheap and quick trip into Medellín. Cost: 9,500.00 pesos (about $3.25 as of this writing).
RAMBLIN’ EXPERT TIP: If you’re flying in to Medellín from another city inside Colombia (Bogotá, etc.), you can choose to fly directly into the city using the national airport: Enrique Olaya Herrera Airport (EOH). This airport is located actually inside the valley of Medellín, thus eliminating the windy drive up over and into the city. Make sure to search for flights into EOH in addition to MDE and see what’s available.
My first impressions of Medellín were grand: the scenery was one-of-a-kind; lots of red and green, as I descended into the giant green valley with lots of fauna, slowly transitioning into various hues of reds, as brick seemed to be the most common form of construction here.
Once the bus dropped me off downtown, it was a short-distance cab ride to my hotel, which took an excruciatingly long time due to almost standstill traffic. I couldn’t figure out why the streets were so jammed on a sábado. Finally at my digs, I dropped my bags, tinkled and was off to explore!
Soarin’ Over Medellín
First stop: Medellín’s famous Metrocable cable car system. I grabbed an Uber to the metro station first and enjoyed the 15-minute minute above-ground cruise to Comuna 13. The train was crowded, but clean. Medellín’s metro system is all above ground, providing great views of the city all-around. I love me a city with good public transport. At the Comuna 13 stop, I transferred to the Metrocable.
Truth be told, this was the one thing I was most excited to do in Medellín. I’d missed riding the teleferico in La Paz, so I made the cable cars here a priority. They didn’t disappoint. The glass (plastic) gondolas seat six and are strung above Medellín’s hillside neighborhoods. The Metrocable would be better than any ride I’d ever experienced at Disneyland or Universal Studios. Where else can you get a bird’s eye view of all the houses, shacks, stairs, paths and people of the city’s hillside neighborhoods? It seemed like I was only a couple dozen feet above the roofs, as I spied laundry strung across clotheslines, kids playing, dogs frolicking and neighbors gossiping. It was an up-close and very intimate look at everyday life in Medellín and it was spectacular. I rode all the way to the top–reaching a second peak and the final station, Aurora, and then back down to San Xavier station, where the line began. Currently, there are four separate Metrocable lines throughout the city, and I wished I would have had time to experience them all. I’ll definitely plan to ride the others next time.
Get in my Belly
I was starvin’-Marvin, so I was relieved and excited to spy an arepa shop right outside the San Xavier station. I’d been craving arepas since my last trip to Colombia, so this was long overdue. I washed ‘er down with a giant cup of fresh strawberry juice before I headed off to see more of Medellín in the golden setting sun.
Besides that first metro ride over to the Metrocable, I used a combination of local taxis and Ubers; both convenient and available everywhere.
RAMBLIN’ TIP: Uber is actually illegal in Colombia, but it still flourishes and is used by many. I learned it’s best to sit in the front seat of your Uber, so make it look less conspicuous. I only realized this when my driver asked me to sit up front with him. Noted.
Top of the Hill
Next stop, a drive up Nutibara Hill to stroll an old square called Pueblito Paisa. It included a cobblestone courtyard, an old church and some classic Spanish-architectured buildings, complete with classic red-tiled roofs and balconies. There were lots of souvenir shops and vendor carts selling snacks and drinks.
Pueblito Paisa may have been a little too “touristy” for me, but the views of the city definitely made this place a must-see. Just past the town square lies a giant concrete platform offering vistas of every end of Medellín. It was a great place to admire Colombia’s cool architecture, take a selfie and relax a bit.
Next to riding The Metrocable, my most memorable moment on this trip was the surprise performance by this giant asylum of drummers that ambushed Parque de Los Deseos. I am not easily impressed by street performers, but these guys absolutely blew me away. The over two-dozen drummers swiftly descended onto the grounds and commenced a thunderous rhythm that echoed off of a concrete roof above. Within seconds, mobs of park-goers were running toward the performance to get a good spot. The music was great and the energy was electric! I got goosebumps and a tingle ran up my spine. It’s these surprises that are the reasons I travel. They make it all worth it–the hassle, the stress, the money, the risk–moments like these make the hassle all worth it, and are such a strong reminder of why I travel.
After dark it was over to la Zona Rosa for dinner. Located in the upscale Poblado neighborhood, Zona Rosa is Medellín’s version of Bourbon Street, lined with restaurants, clubs, bars, music and lights. I grabbed a Club Colombia cerveza and another arepa and enjoyed live music from two guys and their guitars. They sang the classics while I ate next to the sidewalk. The perfect end to an awesome day.
Here’s the part where I’m supposed to tell you about my wild night at the clubs, dancing the night away with hot Colombian chicks. Well crap. I was in bed early that night like a viejo. It was a crazy week and I had a long journey home the next day. I’d fly out Sunday midday and not arrive back home until 9:30 Monday morning, heading straight into the office. I needed to recharge my batteries. Luckily, I’d have “the big seat” returning home, so it would be another nice flight.
I squeezed the most out of my three hour layover in Ft. Lauderdale, escaping the confines of the airport to meet up with a friend and grab my last arepa at Santo Paisa Restaurant and Bakery, just down the street in Hollywood. My buddy Graham is a huge Cololmbia fan and we traded stories while chowing down.
And Now…The REST of the (Insta) Story…
Here’s what 24-hours in Medellín looks like.